In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, several parts of India are reeling from devastating floods, including sixteen districts of Uttar Pradesh. According to a tweet by the chief minister’s office, posted on 18 August, the floods have affected 838 villages in these districts—which include Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh, Deoria, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Mau and Sant Kabir Nagar—and of these, 520 are submerged. In previous tweets, the CMO noted that multiple rivers, including the Ghaghara, were flowing at dangerous levels.
Villagers in eastern Uttar Pradesh told me that they witness floods almost yearly. However, they said, the situation this year appears to be the worst in recent times. Several residents of this region migrate to bigger cities for work, but after the imposition of the countrywide lockdown to contain the coronavirus in March, many of them had to return home. With fewer job opportunities available in their native villages, some of them sustained themselves by working on farms. But when floods hit the region towards the end of July, villagers said their farms were inundated, leaving little scope to earn a living.
According to residents, many houses collapsed in their villages. They said they feared that the embankments near their homes, which were dilapidated, would break down completely due to overflowing rivers. While the Uttar Pradesh government has been posting about its relief efforts on its Twitter accounts, residents I spoke to said they had received almost no assistance from the administration. Moreover, despite the Adityanath led-state government’s emphasis on cattle protection, almost all residents I spoke to characterised the unavailability of fodder as their biggest challenge during the floods.
Among the residents was Shubham Yadav, who said he is pursuing a PhD from the University of Delhi. Shubham, a 26-year-old, lives in Ambedkar Nagar district’s Golwa village with eight family members. “We sustain ourselves by farming,” he said. “But all of it is ruined now.” He said the family lost paddy, spread over three bighas of land, to the floods this year. “It has become very difficult for my mother and aunt to look after our cattle, to find fodder for them,” he said. “We have some straw, which we can feed for now.” But it will be difficult to feed them in the coming days, he said. “If the situation worsens, we will have to sell our cattle as others are already doing.”
“This year, the flood was more devastating than last year,” Shubham said. “We are facing two crises at once—corona had left us in dire straits already.” Shubham and his younger brother, a student at Rajasthan’s Kota city, were among the several people who had to return to their villages due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. According to him, when they returned, villagers were still able to find work as farm labourers. “Now there is nothing. No one knows how much time it will take to recover from this.”
Shubham was apprehensive about the future. “As the flood ends, many diseases will spread—Dengue, Malaria and Encephalitis.” He did not seem to be expecting sufficient government aid either. “Last year, people received Rs 1,500 for ten bisse”—20 bisse equals one bigha land—“as flood compensation, which is very less. Those who have no land get nothing.”
Like Shubham, most residents said they relied completely on farming for sustenance and had lost their paddy and sugarcane crops to the deluge. Chandramani Yadav is a 28-year-old farmer who lives in Mau district’s Mishroli village with his family of ten. Chandramani said his crops—17 acres of paddy and eight acres of sugarcane—were ruined. He said the women in his home had gone to a relative’s house, far away, as soon as the flood hit the village.
Chandramani said he had three buffalos and two cows, but he was finding it difficult to find fodder for them. “Relatives have been asked to send it across,” he said. “Since water entered our home as well, our straw has also been ruined.” He, too, said people around him were being forced to sell their livestock due to a dearth of fodder.
Rajesh Nishad, a 35-year-old resident of Naya Nagar village in Deoria district, also spoke about losing his crop and finding it difficult to feed his cattle. Rajesh is a part of the Nishad community, traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers, which has been struggling to make ends meet since the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus began. To earn a living, Rajesh said, he used to grow vegetables on one bigha land and ferry them across Ghaghara river on his boat to sell them.
“First, during the lockdown, no one was buying my vegetables,” Rajesh said. He told me he was growing lauki and kakdi—gourd and cucumber—at that time. “I uprooted them and planted okra, nenva and boda instead,” he said, referring to three other vegetables. “Now, the flood has completely ruined the crop.” Rajesh has seven family members and one cow. “We are only managing to feed our cow with great difficulty.” According to him, other villagers are also struggling to access fodder.
Rajesh said that in the absence of government aid, villagers are trying to help each other survive the floods. For instance, he said he offered his boat to anyone who required it. “The way we are helping others with our boat, people are also helping out,” he told me. “We have not received any relief from the government.” Rajesh mentioned that there is a need for “health check-ups, but no doctor has come in this direction.” During our conversation on 15 August, he said the flood was getting more severe.